Justin Trudeau's turn to face the weight of expectations

There was another young, electrifying leader once who talked about hope and change with all the gauzy rhetoric at his command, Neil Macdonald writes. Justin Trudeau might want to look at Barack Obama's first two years, to temper those expectations.

Like Obama, Trudeau has been promising the kind of ineffable change that is so hard to deliver

RAW: Justin Trudeau's victory speech from Montreal

8 years ago
Duration 24:11
Canada's next Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his address after the Liberal Party wins a majority in the federal election.

Stephen Harper is a goner, and humiliated, too, to the near-erotic ecstasy of Canada's chattering classes, who loathed him with such intensity it's hard to think of a comparison in modern politics.

Well, maybe Dick Cheney, George W. Bush's Darth Vader.

Suddenly, in Justin Trudeau we have a prime minister-designate who's banging on about hope and trust and inclusiveness and believing in yourself and being better and listening to everyone and diversity and all sorts of other happy thoughts. He even threw in tolerance for hijabs.

Last week, Harper tried to say this wasn't about him, but it was. All those Conservative candidates he muzzled and controlled are probably wishing they'd grown some spine and stood up to those PMO staffers who've been ordering them around for years.

The smile that spread across the lips of the Canadian elites during the last week of this election, when Harper was reduced to posing with Rob Ford and his brother in an attempt to shore up what amounts to the Canadian Tea Party vote, was almost wolfish.

And that probably included most journalists. Harper sneered at them for years, and many were happy to return the sentiment.

Even the reliably conservative Globe and Mail, in supporting its favourite party, slipped in the gormless suggestion that if Harper did win, he should resign.

Well, the Globe will at least get the second part of its wish. Which brings us to the subject of change.

'We are the ones we've been waiting for'

Over the last several weeks, there's been a lot of eager, nostalgic liberal talk about returning Canada to a nation of peacekeepers and neutral conciliators and environmentally concerned moderates. You know, the friendly world where travellers with little maple leaf flags on their backpacks drew instant affection and respect in even the nastiest foreign land.

Liberal supporters reacts to the party's majority election results at campaign headquarters in Montreal. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The fellow who did win last night sort of promised all those things, at least in the subtext of his campaign speeches.

Real change was one of his slogans. That, and hope, and national reconciliation and uniting behind the common dreams of all Canadians.

Sound familiar?

There was another night, back in 2008, when American liberals were weeping with happiness, too.

Suddenly, their warmonger president was gone and America had a new leader, an inspiring master of gauzy rhetoric: "We are the ones we've been waiting for!" he would shout to delirious crowds.

No one knew what that meant, but it sounded great.

Now, Justin Trudeau is no Barack Obama. Trudeau didn't electrify the way Obama did. But the earnestness is remarkably similar.

Barack Obama: "Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?"

Justin Trudeau: "Canadians are tired of being cynical."

Obama: "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

Trudeau: "We're asking those who have done well to do a little more for the people who need it."

Obama: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America."

Trudeau: "Conservatives are not our enemies. They're our neighbours. They want what's best for their country, just like we do."

Weight of expectations

And so on. Here's another similarity: like Obama, Trudeau now bears the weight of impossible expectations that he himself largely created.

But remember, it didn't take long for Obama to hit a bog of reality once his public rapture wore off six years ago.

A much younger president-elect Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, acknowledge the crowd after he delivered his victory speech at his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago in November 2008. (Associated Press)

There is indeed a conservative America, for starters. And there is an order of things that doesn't like change and has the money to fight it.

Ultimately, Obama had to abandon a big chunk of his progressive agenda: tax breaks and credits for ordinary Americans, elimination of loopholes for one percenters, financial protection for homeowners and seniors, pro-union changes, steps to cheapen drug prices, expanding workers' rights, stricter gun laws, closing Guantanamo, ending foreign wars ... the list fills pages.

In the U.S., progressives stopped smiling, then grew disgusted. Some now regard Obama as indistinguishable from moderate Republicans, which may explain the rise of the socialist from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.

But Obama's failures weren't for lack of political will.

He simply ran up against the people who really run America, as the comic George Carlin used to say.

In Trudeau's case, it won't be hard for him to keep his most prominent promise — to run a deficit for a few years. Spending more than you earn is always easy. He may already be inheriting a deficit.

But he's taking power at a time of tremendous transformation. A housing correction may be coming. Younger generations are struggling with debt.

At the same time, entire cohorts of baby boomers are retiring. Try to trim their entitlements, which will almost certainly be necessary, and see what happens.

Or try to force some competition into the Canadian banking sector. Or the almost closed-shop telecommunications sector. Or try to cut red tape at the border, and encourage true free trade with the Americans.

Trudeau will need revenue to fulfill his agenda, but even Liberals won't be keen on restoring the taxes Stephen Harper cut. They may not even really want a larger federal government.

Change in tone

Our new prime minister might say he's going to sit down and negotiate with Canada's premiers "with deep respect," but wait until he gets a load of what's involved with that. His father knew.

What Trudeau can do, of course, is change the tone. That costs nothing, and a lot of Canadians want it to happen.

He can make Canada's positions abroad more nuanced, less absolutist and replace Canada's swagger at the UN with some actual diplomacy.

He can walk back the talk about how terrorists threaten us daily in our very homes, and perhaps speak honestly about the effectiveness of our combat mission in Iraq and Syria.

He may end up joining the rest of the Western world in supporting the nuclear deal with Iran, and perhaps even recognize that there are two sides to the question of Israel and the Palestinians.

But sweeping reversals of Stephen Harper's legacy? It's been almost a decade, and Harper changed the status quo. Even Trudeau himself seems to understand that.

Here's another Trudeau quote, uttered after Stephen Harper was closeted by security officers during the gunman's attack on Parliament Hill last year. He might want to keep the gist of it in mind:

"I think it's hard to know how one deals in situations of confrontation until you're actually in there, so I'm not going to speculate on what I would do."


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.